Burning Snow

by Zack (ザックス)
illustrated by celectis

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/44697.html)

Dorcha bounded up the stairs, desperately trying to block out the sounds of screaming. He had to hurry, had to make it before it was too late. His throat burned like fire and little stars danced before his eyes when he finally reached the top of the tower. The door was dark, the wood rotting from decades of keeping the demon sealed within.

Years and years worth of warnings to never even go near the door made him hesitate for a split second — and it was his undoing. He felt the arrow burrow into his back, pushing him forward in a blinding haze of pain and making him fall against the door. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he pushed down on the door handle and entered, shutting the door and hoping the soldier wouldn’t be foolish enough to follow him inside.

He stumbled forward and fell to his knees. He didn’t know how to do this, didn’t even know where to start. But time was of the essence, and he knew enough of demons to have a faint idea of their desires. “Please,” he gasped, “save my family. I’ll give you my soul in return.”

Silence. He let out a low whimper of disappointment, not knowing what else to offer. His soul was all he had to give, all he owned in this bleak world. A loud crash from below made him jolt, and with it came realization. The demon had been sealed here for so long, it probably had no strength anymore. He didn’t know what would provide a creature like that with energy, but perhaps an offering would do. Dorcha reached back, grabbing the shaft of the arrow in a firm grip. Taking a deep breath he then yanked it loose, feeling the warm spray of his blood pouring down his back and dyeing the stone floor a dark red.

The stale air of the tower seemed to thicken, growing dense with the approaching evil. But the shroud of blackness was finally closing in on Dorcha, and he could no longer resist its beckoning. Oblivion claimed him before he had a chance to see what his desperate summoning had brought forth.

—-

Dorcha woke slowly, feeling more tired than anything else; drained to the bone. It was an all-out effort to even open his eyes, but he finally managed to get them open.

A child was sitting next to him, twirling an arrow in his hand. It was hypnotic, little drops of blood flying from it in a wide arc, only to seemingly disappear into thin air before they could splatter on the ground. A pair of unnerving eyes focused him, the arrow immediately stilling.

“About time you woke up, kid.”

Kid? Dorcha frowned, he might not be that old but he was certainly no kid anymore. And even if that was debatable, he was certainly older than this rude child!

“Next time, be a bit clearer. I only figured those old geezers to be your ‘family’ because they were the ones being slaughtered.” He let out a small chuckle at this, as if there was something amusing in the statement. It sent a shiver down Dorcha’s back.

“I don’t understand,” he croaked.

“Humans rarely do.” The reply held an air of arrogance ill-suited a child his age.

“What…?” Dorcha struggled to sit up, still feeling drained. The child was confusing him — his presence made no sense, much less his attitude — and the fact that he wasn’t in any pain was an even greater source of confusion. In all honesty he hadn’t expected to wake up at all, whether it was death by his wound or from the demon collecting his promised reward, so to wake without even hurting in the least was completely baffling. But there really was no time to focus on this, he had to make sure everyone was still alive.

“Wait,” he grunted, painstakingly getting to his feet. “Just wait here. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve checked on the others. We can figure out just who the hell you are then.”

“Wow, you’re slow.” He heard the child’s comment just as he was stumbling out the door, but decided to ignore the gibe.

There were voices coming from downstairs, loud and panicked. But he recognized them, and that gave him a much needed boost of energy. Everyone silenced when he came into sight, and he took in the makeshift battlefield with grim satisfaction. The soldiers were scattered around the room in various degrees of gruesomeness. Some looked as if they had died of fright, not a single wound to be found on their bodies. Others had had their throats ripped out, a violent attack that could never have been caused by the pious men he called his family. A sinking feeling of realization was starting to hit him, and as he slowly raised his head and met the eyes of his family he knew it to be true.

“What have you done?!” The priest he informally — and falsely, since he had been a foundling — called father stepped forward, horrified anger clear as day in his voice.

Dorcha swallowed, lowering his head once more. “Forgive me.”

“You released the demon! The demon we’ve been entrusted to keep sealed for all of eternity, you released it.” Worse than fear and anger, Dorcha could also hear disappointment in the old man’s voice.

“I had to,” he said, voice a mere whisper. “You would all have died otherwise.”

Another priest stepped forward, one that had once called him ‘little brother’ and looked upon him with much warmth. “We would gladly have given our lives in order to fulfill our duty. Only cowards fear death.” Dorcha couldn’t stop himself from flinching at the sharp reprimand.

“But,” he tried, “if we had all died the soldiers would’ve taken everything! Everything you’ve been ordered to safeguard, probably the demon too, and-”

“Silence! There is no excuse for what you’ve done, it’s unforgivable.”

He could hold back the tears no longer. They fell down his face, loosening the knot in his throat and forcing him to let out a sob.

The priests kept arguing, but stopped abruptly with a collective gasp. He sniffled, lifting his head and seeing that they were all focusing on a spot behind him. He turned around, frowning when he saw the child sauntering down the stairs.

“You’re the demon, aren’t you?” he said slowly, barely believing it.

The child — no, the demon — inclined his head in a mockingly graceful nod.

“But why do you look like that? I thought…”

The demon opened his mouth as to answer, but the beginning sounds of a prayer to ward of evil made him stop.

“Not that their pathetic nursery rhyme could hurt me, but… Either you shut them up, or I will.” His eyes narrowed dangerously, prompting Dorcha to turn back to the priests.

“Please, just wait. It doesn’t seem like he’s truly malevolent so-”

“He’s been turned by the demon,” someone screeched, a sentiment that was shared by a cacophony of shouts.

Dorcha could only stare in silent despair as the priests argued amongst themselves, some eager to attempt a sealing spell while others were more hesitant.

“Ungrateful bunch, aren’t they?” came the quiet comment from behind him. He should’ve realized the child’s true identity sooner; his voice was much too deep for a child, and there was something ancient and otherworldly about it — as if each word was a breath of smoke, a barely repressed flame.

“They’re my family.”

“Yeah well, that’s hardly an excuse. If anything that only makes it worse.”

His words were true, but hard to accept. “Are they right? Have I been turned by you? I gave you my soul, so…”

The demon chuckled, sending little puffs of warm air tickling the back of Dorcha’s neck. “No, no, and no again. Now pay attention, I think they’ve come to an understanding.”

Head spinning, he focused on the priests again. They were huddled together, making protective gestures against the demon — and Dorcha. His adoptive father stepped forward, breaking free from the cluster of men. “I beg you,” he said, “allow me to speak with my son. Grant me the privacy to say farewell, should the worst come to pass.”

The highest ranking priest hesitated, but finally gave his permission with a curt nod. The priests dispersed, leaving the group of three by themselves.

“What did you use to rouse the demon?” the priest demanded.

“I…” Dorcha’s voice broke, unable to say the things he truly wanted to. “My blood,” he finally said.

“I thought so.” He let out a weary sigh, looking like all the world’s troubles were on his shoulders. “There is no helping it then, you have to make a run for it.”

“What…?” Dorcha felt his heart skip a beat, erasing the numbness that had crept into it.

“They want to attempt a sealing spell, and you might be dragged into it too. Nobody wants to include you in it, but I fear it can’t be done otherwise. The way you summoned the demon made him effectively linked to you. There’s no time to explain, you must hurry! The horses that the soldiers rode in on are all outside, take one and let the others loose.”

“But, I…”

“Please, my son. I can’t allow that to happen. I might be a priest, but I’m also a father.”

Dorcha threw himself into his father’s arms, sobs tearing a raw path up his throat. “But what about you?” he hiccupped.

“I’ll be fine,” the priest whispered, petting Dorcha’s hair with a soothing hand. “I’ll just tell them the demon overpowered me.”

The sound of a long-suffering sigh made them finally break the hug. “If you’re done with all this sentimentality,” the demon grumbled, “let’s get going.”

“Dorcha, the demon is your responsibility now.” The priest’s voice was stern now, deadly serious. “I believe you have some power over it, but don’t ever let your guard down. You never know what cunning tricks it might attempt in order to break your bond. I hate that you’ll be burdened with this, but you mustn’t allow it to hurt anyone or do any otherwise evil deeds.”

Dorcha nodded solemnly, ignoring the demon snickering behind his back. “Farewell father, thank you for everything. I will take care of the demon, I swear.”

“May the gods protect you, my son.”

Dorcha ran out the door, heading towards the horses. He looked them over, trying to quickly find the best two of the lot.

“Animals are no good.”

“Say what?” Dorcha turned to the demon, stressed to the point of breaking.

“I can’t go near animals without them going crazy, much less ride one. They know I’m not human, even when I’m in this form.”

Dorcha groaned, frustratedly wondering if things could possibly get any worse. The first horse he had picked out — a powerful bay — seemed perfectly calm though, and that was good enough for him. He let the other horses loose, egging them to run deeper into the forest and far away from any potential followers.

Taking a deep breath, he then grabbed hold of the demon and lifted him into the saddle. He let out an indignant spluttering, but Dorcha quickly mounted and urged the bay into a quick canter; not giving him a chance to jump off or do something equally dumb.

—-

“I won’t forget that,” he spat as soon as Dorcha reined in the horse and loosened his death-grip on the demon. “Don’t you ever do anything like that again, or I swear I’ll…”

Dorcha watched him jump off the horse — more like fall off, in all honesty — spluttering threats that were just as childish as his appearance. “What was I supposed to do?” he asked. “We needed to get away quickly, and you weren’t exactly helping.”

“Listen to me next time!”

“I will,” Dorcha snapped, “if what you’re saying makes any sense! She’s not scared of you at all, can’t you tell?”

“…She?”

“The horse!”

“Oh. I didn’t know it was a girl,” the demon muttered, as if that somehow held any relevance.

“Look,” Dorcha sighed, securing the mare near the small brook so she could graze. “I just lost everything. Do you understand? Everything. I didn’t feel like arguing with you over a damned horse, and since it worked out fine I don’t see a point in arguing about it now either.”

The demon answered with an implacable glare, but kept his mouth shut. That was good enough for Dorcha, who immediately set out to gather firewood.

His life so far hadn’t given much practice for things like this, which made itself blatantly evident when he failed to make a fire. He kept banging the two stones together, just like he knew you were supposed to do, desperately hoping for a spark to ignite the kindling. He was growing more and more frustrated by the minute, and it didn’t exactly help that the demon was watching him intently and looking highly amused.

He was just about to give up when the kindling suddenly took fire; a large burst of flames that singed his hands and made him jump up with a yelp. He sucked distractedly on his thumb, watching the flicker of flames with confusion. Weren’t you supposed to just get a small spark at first, one you’d have to blow on before it became an actual fire? A low chuckle tore him from his thoughts, and realization hit him.

“Thanks,” he said dryly, “although I would’ve appreciated a warning.”

“Consider it payback for earlier.”

“Heh, of course. You’re a fire demon then, right?”

“Your powers of perception are truly astounding.”

Dorcha ran a hand through his hair, making a fist and yanking it. It was his way of trying to keep his composure, a lifelong habit that had come from the priests always berating him for not being able to control his temper (and the foul language that usually ensued when he lost it).

Oh, so that’s why your hair looks like a bird’s nest.”

“What?” Dorcha’s head snapped up fast enough to make his neck hurt.

“That dark mop of yours,” the demon gestured languidly, “it’s messy enough to be a bird’s nest. You’ll wake up one day with eggs in it.”

“Why don’t you look at yourself instead, aren’t you supposed to be a demon? You look like a normal brat, but hey, at least that suits your attitude.”

His eyes narrowed into tiny slits. “That’s your fault, kid.”

“Stop calling me that! I’m not a child, and I do have a name.”

“Exactly how old are you then?”

“I’m fifteen,” he answered, jutting his chin out. “And my name is Dorcha.”

“Well then, Dorcha, I can assure you that compared to me you are still very much a child. And while we’re at it anyway, you may call me Tei.”

Hearing the demon speak his name had sent a strange jolt through Dorcha, and he had to struggle to get his mind back on track. “You… you said it was my fault you are in that form. Could you explain?”

“Yes, if you’ll answer some of my questions afterwards.”

Dorcha nodded, taking a seat by the fire and hoping the demon would follow his lead. He did, sitting down beside Dorcha with a small sigh.

“That priest, the one who let us go, was he really your father?”

“Perhaps not by blood, but everything else. I was left on the monastery’s doorstep as a baby, and he was the one to take the role as my father.”

Tei nodded. “I thought so. In any case, just like he said, your summoning left a lot to be desired. Normally you’d use a sacrifice to call out the demon; someone else’s blood. If you do that, the demon will be able to feed off whatever he pleases.”

“But if you use your own blood…” Dorcha said slowly, realization dawning.

“Exactly. If you use your own blood, the demon will be restricted to only drawing energy from your life force. He’ll be bound to you, and you to him.”

“I understand. But it doesn’t explain why you look like a human child.”

“You were more dead than alive when you broke the seal,” Tei smiled wryly. “So even though you offered up plenty of your blood, there wasn’t much energy to be found in it. And then I had to take what little I got and channel it back into you, to heal your wound.”

Dorcha had known that the demon must’ve been the one who saved his life, but he hadn’t quite been able to believe it. “Thank you,” he said quietly, hoping his sincere gratitude would come through despite the simple words. “I never said it, but thank you for saving my family too.”

Tei stiffened, a sneer twisting his childish features. “Don’t get the wrong idea, kid. I just did what I had to.”

Silence reigned, punctuated by the roaring fire. “Like I was saying,” Tei finally continued, “I didn’t have enough energy to take on my true form. This look is a defense mechanism of sorts, all demons have it. Not only does looking like a human child require no strength, but you’re also protected against people who’d otherwise try to harm you.”

“I… I don’t know how you’d do it, but you can take more energy from me now if you want,” Dorcha offered.

Tei looked at him intently, before shaking his head. “No, it’s not worth it. You’re pretty drained still, and I can manage on low reserves better than you can.”

“Oh, okay then.” Dorcha couldn’t help but feel oddly disappointed.

“Now, then. Who were those soldiers, and why were they attacking your monastery?”

“I don’t really know the circumstances of your being sealed there, but it’s a monastery that was originally created for the safekeeping of several powerful artifacts. The old king ordered it, a long time ago, and the priests have done his bidding ever since. Nobody knew the true mission of the priests, aside from the king and his most trusted men. But he was old, really old, and he died a while back. His son, the new king, turned out to be quite different from his father. He wanted power, wanted to conquer new lands. He came to us, demanding to be given everything. The priests refused, of course, and he left in a fury. And then, tonight, the soldiers showed up. You know the rest.”

Tei was contemplating the fire with a deep frown. “Do you think he’ll send out more men?”

“That’s what I fear, yes. He seemed like a very obsessive man. My only hope is that the priests will take everything, flee to another monastery and hide there. You were the only thing tied to the actual place, everything else is moveable.”

“I see. So what do you plan on doing? I don’t think you’re the kind of person who could just walk away from a situation like this.”

“Seems like you know me pretty well already,” Dorcha tried to laugh, but failed miserably. “I’d like to stick around — without them knowing, of course — just to make sure they’ll be okay. Is… is that all right with you?”

Tei shrugged. “It’s not like I have any place I need to be or anything. I’ve been sealed in that damn place for such a long time that everything’s changed, and I…” he trailed off, kicking some dirt into the fire.

Dorcha had to remind himself that the person next to him wasn’t a lost little child (despite certainly looking the part). He was a demon, and you do not ruffle a demon’s hair encouragingly or give him a hug. “I’m sorry,” he settled on instead, “I can’t imagine what that must be like. Did you… did you have someone you cared for?”

“What’s it to you?!” Tei stood up abruptly, fury clear as day in his voice. “The only reason you released me was because you wanted something from me, so don’t give me your damn pity now. I don’t want it, and I sure as hell don’t need it.”

“But, I-” Dorcha tried, but was cut off immediately.

“Save it. Just go to sleep already.”

Dorcha watched as Tei stalked into the forest, leaving him behind. He was about to ask him where he thought he was going, but realized that the demon would be forced to return — whether he wanted to or not. So he kept silent, seeing no real reason to try and appease the creature. For that was all he was after all, right? An evil creature who should be sealed for everyone’s sake; and certainly not someone who justified the feelings of sympathy and guilt rolling in his gut.

—-

Dorcha woke to the smell of burning meat. He blinked drowsily, trying to get his eyes to focus on the source of the smell. Tei was sitting crouched by the fire, idly rotating the skinned carcass of a rabbit over the flames.

“Mm, that looks good.” Not completely true, but he was hungry enough that just about anything looked appetizing.

The demon prodded the meat before he got up, walking over to Dorcha and holding out the skewer for him.

“Thank you,” he said, eagerly taking the food. “You don’t want any, I guess?”

“No. If you want water you’ll have to get it yourself.”

“Uh, okay, that’s fine.” He gave Tei a wide smile, but all he got in return was a minimalistic nod before the demon went back to sit by the fire again.

After he had finished eating and washed up in the brook, he prepared the mare for the day. She seemed energetic enough, which was a relief. Now, if only he could get Tei to quit sulking over the events of last night, they’d be getting a good start.

“Hey,” he called, “I’m feeling perfectly fine now, so do you want to… you know, get some energy off me? Just tell me what I have to do.”

Tei stood up and walked over to him, a deep frown on his face.

“Take all you need, we might run into more soldiers if we’re unlucky,” Dorcha said, trying to encourage the demon.

“Close your eyes,” Tei mumbled, so quiet that he had to strain to hear it.

“Ah, all right.” He did as asked, feeling extremely uncomfortable; unguarded and open. When he felt something touch his face he flinched, eyes flying open.

Tei let his hand fall, a brief glimpse of an unidentifiable emotion — if Dorcha didn’t know better he’d say it was disappointment — flitting by before anger took over his childish face. “Don’t offer it if you don’t mean it,” he snarled.

“Sorry. I’ll stand still now, I promise.” Dorcha closed his eyes again, fisting his hands in preparation for whatever the demon would do.

At first it seemed like Tei wouldn’t try again, but then came the light touch again. Tei’s fingers roamed over his forehead and down his temple, to gently cup his cheek. It stayed like that for a couple of heartbeats before growing hotter and suddenly being removed.

“It’s done.” His voice sounded the same at least, and with a sigh of relief that it was over Dorcha opened his eyes, only to freeze.

The creature in front of him was tall; he had gotten used to the small — not to mention handy — form of a child, and now he had to crane his neck unless he wanted to stare at Tei’s chest… a chest that was now lithely muscled, but that was beside the point. The auburn hair of the child was now full-out red, not to mention long and shining. His ears were finely pointed, and a pair of curved horns crowned his head. The horns were black, and both had a thin red streak twisting its way up them. But the most startling change was perhaps his eyes; they were an unnatural yellow color, and had horizontal pupils just like those of a goat.

“I’m ready to go whenever you’re done staring.”

“Oh. Sorry, I just…” Dorcha spluttered, feeling an embarrassed blush creeping onto his face. “You just look very different.”

“You don’t say.” Tei turned away, before muttering something unintelligible.

“What? I didn’t hear you.”

“I said,” he snarled, “if it bothers you so much I can change back.”

“No!” Tei raised a finely sculpted eyebrow, seemingly just as surprised by the vehement outburst as Dorcha himself. “I mean, uhm, I don’t mind it. You look…” he trailed off, not sure how to word the strange feeling Tei’s true appearance gave him.

“Let’s just go,” he finally mumbled, setting a foot in the stirrup and mounting the mare in one quick motion.

Tei stayed put, contemplating him with a small frown. Sighing, Dorcha reached out a hand towards the demon. “You coming?”

“Guess three times.”

Dorcha took a deep breath, trying to contain his temper. “Just grab my hand and I’ll help you up. You’re heavier now, but she’ll manage fine if we take it slow.”

“I can travel perfectly fine on my own. That’s the way I’ve done it for decades before you were even born, kid.”

“You know what, I changed my mind. Why don’t you turn back into a child again, so I can haul your ass up here!”

Tei chuckled. “And here I thought a kid raised by priests would be meek. Well, enough of this, I’m going on ahead.”

Tei was gone before Dorcha had even opened his mouth to reply. Letting out a string of curses he urged the mare forward into a gallop, desperate to catch up with the demon.

—-

Dorcha rode without pause until he reached the monastery. First then did he stop, getting off the mare and quietly apologizing for pushing her so hard. It had been all for nothing too; he hadn’t seen as much as a glimpse of Tei.

“Took you long enough.”

He stiffened, easily recognizing that cocksure and sardonic tone of voice.

“They’re gone already,” Tei continued, sauntering into view from behind a tree. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand humans. Those priests of yours, they actually took the time to bury the soldiers. The same men who tried to rob and kill them! What idiots.”

“Shut up,” Dorcha snapped. “Just because we’re not heartless beasts like you doesn’t give you the right to mock!”

The words had barely left his lips before he was slammed up against a tree, Tei’s hand around his throat.

“What. Do. You. Know.” Tei hissed, punctuating each word with a tightening of his grip. “Those soldiers you had me destroy, they were the first humans I ever killed. Oh but trust me, I was glad to do it. I’ll never hold back again, never again!”

Dorcha couldn’t breathe, feet dangling feebly in the air. “I was sealed for one reason, and one reason alone. I was a demon, end of story! Didn’t matter that I hadn’t done anything bad, didn’t matter that I just wanted to be left in peace.” Tei went on, but all Dorcha could hear was a strange roaring sound that drowned out everything else.

And then, just as sudden as he had been grabbed, he was released. He fell to the ground, coughing and gasping for painful gulps of air.

The demon crouched down, extending a hand towards him. “Don’t,” he managed to croak, scooting away.

“I didn’t mean to…” Tei trailed off. It looked like his hand was shaking, but Dorcha contributed it to his blurry vision. “I can heal it, just let me-”

“No.” Dorcha got up, swaying slightly. Without another word he made his way into the monastery, leaving the demon behind.

It felt strange being in there again, an empty and desolate place now, so different from the home he had once known. Not wanting to linger too long, he quickly collected his meager belongings from his room and packed them into a saddlebag. The money and extra clothes would come in handy — if the demon didn’t kill him before he had a chance to use them, of course.

Tei was waiting outside, sitting leaned against the tree where he had been left. His eyes were focused on the blue flames dancing on his open palm, but there was something very distant in his gaze. The strange sight sent a shiver through Dorcha.

Tei suddenly made a fist, extinguishing the fire at once. “They went north,” he said blankly.

Dorcha nodded. That made sense, they were surely heading for the large monastery located near the mountains. “Let’s go,” he whispered, wishing it didn’t hurt so much to talk.

Tei surprised him by walking over to the mare and then leading her to him. He wouldn’t meet Dorcha’s eyes either, just silently handing him the reins.

“Thanks. Traveling alone again?”

Tei seemed to hesitate, before shaking his head. “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to ride.”

Even more surprising, but he didn’t want to rebuff this change in demeanor. Mounting the mare as high up as possible (almost sitting astride her withers; a most uncomfortable position), he gestured for Tei to put his foot into the stirrup he left empty. Tei did so, but instead of pulling himself into the saddle he reached out his hand, meeting Dorcha’s eyes at last.

Dorcha swallowed, collecting the reins with one hand before grabbing the would-be peace offering and helping Tei up.

“Let me have the stirrups,” he instructed, trying to keep his heart from racing so. But Tei completely tore down his composure when he firmly laced his arms around Dorcha’s waist, lifting the smaller man back to make him more or less sit in the demon’s lap. It was actually a good position for two people riding the same horse, but for some reason Dorcha couldn’t seem to focus on the practical details.

“You’re really warm,” he complained, fully aware that — despite the fire demon’s innate heat — he was the one radiating warmth. It felt like his heart was trying to beat its way out of his chest, and he was sweating despite the rather chilly weather. It had to be fear, he concluded as he urged the horse into a slow walk, fear of having to be so close to the unpredictable demon. But, deep down, he knew that wasn’t the case.

—-

They had been riding for almost an hour — in a silence that was, to Dorcha’s surprise, rather companionable — when he realized it. His throat was no longer hurting.

“Tei…”

“Yes?”

“How come my throat isn’t hurting anymore?”

He felt the demon shrug. “How should I know?”

Dorcha didn’t believe the feigned ignorance even for a second. “So that was why you suddenly agreed to ride with me. You could only heal me if you touched me, right?”

Tei was silent for a long time before he finally replied. “I know you don’t believe me, but I truly didn’t mean to hurt you. I just… Everything feels so unreal to me. I don’t know how long I was sealed, but somehow I – I got used to it. I can’t explain what it was like, it was a state of nothingness; I was in there but at the same time I wasn’t anywhere at all.”

Dorcha swallowed, not liking the quietly plaintive and almost hollow tone of his voice. It was so unlike Tei, and it made something in him ache.

“The things you said just reminded me of everything that man said, the one who sealed me. For a split second I could even see his face in front of me, and that just pushed me over the edge. I didn’t realize how much force I was using, didn’t realize that I was hurting you. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

Dorcha reined in the mare, taking a deep breath before he twisted around in the saddle in order to face Tei. The demon jerked slightly, but stayed still despite the even closer proximity.

“I’m sorry too,” Dorcha said softly. “I grew up with stories of how I should never even go near the tower, because of the evil monster that was in there. But now I’ve started to realize that the true difference between us is perhaps only on the surface…” He slowly lifted a hand towards Tei’s face, intending to touch one of his horns to emphasize his point. He froze midway though, not sure if the gesture would be appreciated (or even accepted).

But Tei just smiled, a warm and sincere smile so unlike his usual sneering smirk. He tilted his head to the side, making his horn hit Dorcha’s palm with a soft thud.

Dorcha carefully ran his hand up the curved length, letting his fingertips slide over the ridges of the red streak. His heart was beating hard enough for the world to hear, and his entire body was tingling.

He finally tore his eyes away from the horn, only to find his gaze drawn to Tei’s lips. They were ever so slightly opened, forming a small circle. As he watched a red tongue darted out, wetting the lips in a quick motion.

He felt all the blood rushing to his groin, leaving him feeling lightheaded enough to somehow justify the idea of closing the tiny distance between them.

Tei’s lips were still under his, but warm and inviting nonetheless. He wasn’t sure how kisses really worked, but slowly slipping his tongue between those parted lips felt like the right thing to do.

Tei tensed up, a low growl erupting from his throat. And then he was the one being kissed, and it certainly seemed like Tei knew what he was doing. The demon’s kiss seared him to the bone; desperate and primitive and demanding. Dorcha gave all he had in return, losing himself to the sensation.

It was a cruel jolt back to reality when Tei suddenly broke the kiss. His horizontal pupils were dilated, leaving only a thin ring of yellow around them.

“Are you trying to make me lose control again?” he forced out through his gritted teeth.

Dorcha let out an unintelligible stuttering (that made no sense even to himself), but Tei didn’t stick around long enough to hear it. He jumped off the mare and disappeared in a blur of motion, leaving one very conflicted young man behind.

—-

The sun was beginning to set when Tei showed up again. Dorcha was rubbing down the mare when the demon suddenly entered the small clearing he had chosen to set up camp in.

“The priests are pretty close,” he said without any preamble. “They seem to be doing fine. I overheard them saying that they had another day’s worth of travel before they reached the mountains. Do you know the significance of that?”

“Yeah. There’s another monastery there, I assume they plan on asking for sanctuary there. It’s a big one too, and close to a town, so it should be a lot safer than our old home.”

Tei nodded.

“And speaking of towns,” Dorcha continued, “there’s a small village just past this forest. I was planning on walking over to buy some supplies. Not that the food you got me wasn’t good, don’t get me wrong! I’d just, you know, like to get some other stuff too.” He was dimly aware that he was babbling, but he couldn’t help it. Tei seemed sullen and withdrawn, and he himself was high-strung after a whole day of replaying that kiss in his head.

“I’ll be back soon.” Hesitating, he then quickly mumbled a request, “Stay here, please. I hate it when you just disappear.” Feeling even more embarrassed than before, Dorcha hurriedly took off without waiting for a reaction.

He hadn’t gotten very far when he heard footsteps behind him. Surprised, he turned around and saw Tei… in his child form.

“Hope you don’t mind,” he smirked, “but I thought I’d tag along.” He kept walking, passing the frozen Dorcha and making it rather clear that he really didn’t care if he minded.

“No,” Dorcha said slowly, “I don’t mind.” For a brief second he had been about to issue a warning to the demon, to tell him not to do anything bad now that they’d be among other people. But the thought had disappeared as soon as it had come; he wanted to trust Tei.

The village was small and quiet, the general store likewise. Dorcha picked together some dried meat and bread, while Tei went around looking at everything. There was an air of childlike curiosity surrounding him, well suited for his current form of course, but Dorcha couldn’t help but wonder if it perhaps wasn’t an act at all.

“Is there anything you want?” Dorcha asked as he put the items on the counter. The owner, an old lady, smiled to herself as she began to calculate the cost.

“I’m sure he’d like some sweets,” she said, winking conspiratorially at Tei. “Tell you what, I’ll give this to you for free.” She produced a piece of marzipan, handing it to him with a warm grin.

“Thank you,” he said slowly, a dazed look of surprise taking over his features. He carefully bit into the sweet bread, eyes focusing warily on Dorcha. Then, his face lit up, and he eagerly took a bigger bite.

“This is really good!”

“I’m glad you liked it,” she laughed. “Have you never tried marzipan before?”

“Marzipan,” Tei repeated, as if carefully imprinting the name in his memory. “No, never.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. Well,” she cast a quick glance at Dorcha, no doubt taking in his worn clothing, “I’m sure your brother would shower you in sweets if only he could.”

“Ah, he’s n-”

“Yup,” Tei interrupted, grabbing Dorcha’s hand and beaming up at him. “I’m sure he would too!”

Dorcha felt a blush spreading over his face, and quickly mumbled his thanks as he paid her.

They were walking through the street, heading back to their camp, when Tei piped up again. “Hey, how about giving your little brother a piggyback?”

“Wha… what’s with you?!”

Tei just shook his head, a small smile flitting over his lips. “No sweets, and not even a piggyback. You make for a lousy brother.”

“That’s because I’m not.”

“Yeah, I know. It was just… nice to pretend.”

Dorcha swallowed, once again rendered speechless by the demon.

“I always did my best to avoid humans. The few times an encounter couldn’t be avoided, well, needless to say it was nothing like this. Felt different to be accepted, I guess.” He let out a dry laugh, one without any real joy behind it.

“Hold this,” Dorcha ordered, thrusting the bag with food into Tei’s arms.

“Why do I have to carry it?” he grumbled.

“I can’t very well give you a piggyback if I have to hold that as well, now can I?” He crouched down, gesturing for Tei to hop on. “Just put your arms around my neck, and then I’ll hold on to you in turn, under your legs.”

Tei took him up on his offer in a matter of seconds, the momentum almost making Dorcha keel over.

“Easy,” he laughed, “I’ve never done this before.”

“Me neither,” Tei replied, tightening his arms around Dorcha’s neck as he began to walk. “But I guess that’s obvious.”

“I, um, I don’t know how it works between demons, but… ah, you didn’t have any siblings or anything?”

Tei let out a low snicker. “It works the same way as it does for humans. Hell, have you ever seen a living creature that didn’t reproduce in such a manner?”

Dorcha pursed his lips, feeling slightly annoyed at the sarcastic tone. “Plants,” he quipped.

“Plants don’t count, you idiot. Although it’d sure be an interesting sight!” Tei was laughing now, a warm rumbling sound that made Dorcha smile despite himself.

A small bird made a quick dash into some bushes as they passed, chirping all the while.

“Uh oh,” Tei said, voice suddenly growing dead serious.

“What? What’s wrong?” Dorcha asked, nervously looking around and almost expecting to see soldiers jumping out from behind the trees.

Tei let go off the bag with one hand, burying his fingers in Dorcha’s hair. “They’ve come for your homegrown bird’s nest. I’ll try my best to protect it, but…” he ominously trailed off.

illustrated by celectis

“Oh, you bastard! If you don’t watch your tongue, I’ll drop you.” Gods help him, but he was beginning to enjoy their easy banter.

“Hm, actually, do let me down.”

“Huh? Why?”

“Just let go off my legs and you’ll see.”

Dorcha did as he asked, trying not to notice the sudden lack of warmth and closeness. The next second his line of sight was taken up by a full-grown demon, handing him the bag again and then crouching down in front of him.

“Wha…?”

“This was your first time too, right? So it’s only fair if you also get to ride.”

“Oh. That’s…”

“Jump on already.” Tei’s voice was gruff, but there was an underlying tone of embarrassment that he couldn’t mask.

“Yeah,” Dorcha smiled softly, “I’m coming.” He climbed on slowly, but needn’t have bothered since Tei was apparently strong enough. He stood back up as if Dorcha weighed nothing, strong arms looping effortlessly under his legs.

Dorcha regretted it almost immediately. There was a different kind of proximity now; a radiating heat from the strong and mature body beneath him, so unlike the gentle and comforting warmth of the child. And it didn’t exactly help that, with every step he took, Tei’s hair kept tickling his face. It was soft, and smelled faintly like fire.

“You’re quiet,” Tei suddenly said, turning his head to briefly glance back over his shoulder.

“…So are you.”

“Mm, I guess. I was just thinking… That kiss, was it another first for you?”

Dorcha stiffened. He hadn’t expected Tei to mention that, not ever. What was he supposed to say? Apologize? Explain? He couldn’t very well do the latter, since he couldn’t even explain it to himself.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Tei finally said, breaking the silence.

“Sorry.”

“Are you?” There was something tense in the question, an emotion flitting by faster than Dorcha could grip it.

“No,” he said quietly, “I’m not.”

Although Tei didn’t reply, Dorcha could feel his shoulders relaxing. With a sigh he finally succumbed to the urge of resting his head against Tei’s back, letting his face fully touch the red strands.

—-

The rest of the evening was spent in silence. On Dorcha’s part it was due to embarrassment and confusion, while Tei’s silence seemed to be of a more contemplative nature. When morning came, Dorcha was tired and grumpy due to having had a most restless sleep. His mood brightened considerably when Tei stuck to him, instead of taking off on his own as usual. He didn’t want to ride, but he leisurely walked beside the horse and kept Dorcha company. Silent, but friendly enough.

They were almost by the mountains, reaching the end of the forest, when their path was cut off by a river.

“It seems like it has a strong current, but it’s not that wide,” Dorcha said. “I think we can cross it.”

“I’m not crossing it.”

“Why not? Don’t like being wet?” Dorcha meant it as a joke, but Tei sent him a glare that made it very clear he didn’t appreciate it.

“You go on ahead. I’ll run until I find a bridge or something, and then I’ll meet up with you on the other side.”

“Fine,” Dorcha shrugged, not wanting to start an argument about something so minor. He gently urged the mare forward, figuring that it’d be easier to control her if he stayed on her back.

Everything went according to plan at first, but then something made the horse stumble. She got her legs back under control within a matter of seconds, but the sudden lurch made Dorcha fall, hitting the cold water at a painful angle.

He trashed for a split second, managing to almost stand up before the current swept him away. He desperately tried to regain his footing, but to no avail.

“Swim!” He faintly heard Tei’s shout over the roaring water, but it didn’t help much.

“Can’t swim,” he tried to say, but his mouth just filled with water.

Dorcha didn’t know which was up anymore and his body ached from being banged on the rocks. There was a moment of clarity, of calm realization amidst the panic, where he knew that he’d die. Tei wasn’t going to save him; he was about to drown.

And then, a hand gripped onto his wrist hard enough to break bones; pulling him away from the cold darkness. Air was suddenly all around him, even though it was hard to breathe with the strong arm encircling his chest.

He was dragged up on the riverbank, and left there to gasp and cough.

“Tei,” Dorcha gasped, not understanding why his rescuer had just disappeared. He managed to pull himself up, and immediately spotted Tei.

He was lying crumpled next to Dorcha, as still as death.

“Tei,” he repeated, crawling over to turn the demon over on his back. His face was white, eyes wide open but unseeing. His breath came in shallow gasps, body convulsing slightly.

“What’s wrong?!” Dorcha felt the panic rising again, even worse than before. “Say something,” he pleaded, but got no reply.

Then it hit him. Water. Tei had consistently avoided water, and he was a fire demon. It hurt him — perhaps even killed, and yet he had still jumped in to save Dorcha.

“Oh, oh gods,” Dorcha whimpered, raising his head to look for the horse. But she was long gone, and he couldn’t leave Tei to go look for her.

“Can you change into your child form? I’ll be able to carry you then,” he begged. Tei lay unresponsive, making no sign that he had even heard Dorcha.

He let out a long string of curses, gripping Tei’s arm and slinging it across his shoulders to grip the cold hand in his own. His other arm went across Tei’s waist, and then he pulled them both up. The demon was heavy, and he was dizzy enough that even walking on his own would’ve been troublesome. But the desperate determination he felt was a good leverage, somehow helping him to drag them both out of the forest.

He had hoped for a house, somewhere warm and dry for Tei (the issue of him being a demon — and thus not welcome anywhere — didn’t even seem like a problem, in the face of current events). But all he saw were the mountains.

He felt Tei slipping, even more of a deadweight than before. A quick glance told him that Tei’s eyes were closed now, and Dorcha couldn’t even tell if he was breathing anymore.

He tore his eyes away from Tei, searching the area for a place that could at least give some shelter. And there, just a bit up, was what appeared to be the entry of a cave.

“Hang on,” he grunted as he started walking again, “we’re almost there. Just a little bit more, and then I’ll get you warm. I’ll save you, I promise.” Dorcha was dimly aware that he was probably only talking to himself, but it didn’t matter.

“With our luck there’ll be a bear in there, don’t you think? And it’s funny, but I’m sweating like crazy now. You’re as cold as ice and I-” A sob broke his voice, but he forced it down with an angry growl. This was no time for crying. “Don’t you dare die on me,” he finally forced out, as they entered the cave.

The cave took a slight turn once a few steps in, ending in a small burrow. It was protected from direct wind but still let light through, and had obviously been used before. The remnants of a fire were scattered on the ground, along with some small pieces of clean-picked bones. But what caught Dorcha’s attention was the discarded blanket lying in the very corner. It was worn and dirty, but it was a blanket nonetheless.

“It seems like we have some luck after all,” he laughed, but it sounded borderline hysterical even to his own ears.

He carefully lowered Tei to the ground, kneeling next to him in order to remove his wet clothes. Tei didn’t react in the least, but his chest did rise and fall — minutely so, but it still made Dorcha breathe a sigh of relief.

Dorcha quickly wrapped the blanket around him as soon as the clothes were removed, doing his best to rub him dry.

“Come on, time to wake up now. Hey, Tei? Can you hear me?”

Tei’s head lolled to the side, in a mockery of a reply. Dorcha bit his lip in an attempt to keep the sobs at bay, chewing it hard enough to draw blood. The idea came to him the second the iron taste of his blood did, and he let go of Tei to remove his own soggy clothes.

Once naked, he gathered Tei in his arms and pulled the blanket around the both of them. Lying down, Dorcha then pressed Tei’s head against his own chest and wrapped both arms protectively around him, lifting one leg to snugly twist over Tei’s waist.

“This is yet another first for me,” he whispered into Tei’s ear. “It’s not what I had expected though, I must admit! Gods, you’re so cold… Hurry up and draw energy from me before you make me lose all my warmth.”

He stroked Tei’s head, letting his fingers lose themselves in the long hair to carefully pick at the tangles. “Don’t worry though, I won’t let go of you even if you do freeze me to ice. I’ve got you, you’ll be fine.”

He kept talking to Tei, just repeating the same sentiment over and over. Slowly, the shivering subsided and Tei seemed to grow warmer. Dorcha let himself cry a little then, in pure relief.

He must have dozed off shortly thereafter, for the next thing he knew the cave was a bit darker, and a pair of half-open eyes were staring at him. They were glazed and tired, but awake.

“Tei!” he shouted, hugging his companion even closer. “How do you feel?!”

Tei let out a low grunt in reply, obviously not up to talking yet.

“Easy, just rest. We’ll stay here for as long as you need.”

Grinning, Dorcha touched Tei’s cheek. It wasn’t meant as anything more than a friendly gesture, but Tei slowly turned his face, nuzzling Dorcha’s palm with his lips.

“Tei, I-” Dorcha’s words were cut off by a kiss, growing more persistent by the second. He tried not to get excited, tried to remind himself that Tei was probably only taking energy from him and nothing more. But the kiss was searing, and with a moan he finally allowed himself to respond.

Dorcha let out a low hiss when Tei nibbled his bottom lip, tearing open the raw flesh anew. But the pain turned to pleasure as Tei ran his tongue over the small wound, wet and slick. The demon’s eyes were growing dilated again, and gained a distinctly feverish gleam upon tasting the blood. His hand gripped Dorcha’s erection, and pumped it crudely.

“T-Tei,” he gasped, “wait-” But his words of protest died on his tongue as Tei slid down his body, licking a path along Dorcha’s torso. He finally reached his destination, and wrapping his tongue around the length he began to suck it.

Moaning loudly, Dorcha arched his back and let the sensation take over. Nothing in his wildest dreams could’ve prepared him for this feeling. It felt like he was on fire, but it was a burn he was more than willing to endure.

“Tei, Tei,” he repeated over and over again, like a prayer of old. His fingers were buried in the red strands, desperate to touch Tei in some way, when he felt a slick finger slip inside of him. It didn’t hurt, it just filled him and made everything explode in an array of colors.

Tei pulled back, licking his lips and almost glowing. Dorcha began to reach out, wanting to return the favor, but Tei just smiled — a predatory grin that sent a jolt through Dorcha’s already spent body.

Tei gripped Dorcha, flipping him over with ease in one fluid motion. Then more fingers entered him, just for a brief second before they were pulled back again. A blunt warmth replaced them, slowly pressing in and making Dorcha flinch in surprise.

“Tei,” he gasped, wishing that Tei would talk to him. The words didn’t matter, as long as he said something.

Tei leaned forward, letting his chest touch Dorcha’s back without really putting any weight on it. He then slid his palm down Dorcha’s sweaty arm, gently loosening the tense fist he’d made and weaving their fingers together.

Dorcha smiled, squeezing Tei’s hand in a silent understanding. Tei thrust forward, entering him fully. Everything blacked out for a moment, the sound of his own high-pitched moaning mingling with Tei’s growling and finally blending into one climaxing sound.

He dimly felt Tei pull out, turning him over on his side and gathering him close.

“Sleep,” he heard Tei say, a command he was more than willing to heed.

—-

Dorcha woke up alone. Darkness was all around him, but every few seconds the cave was illuminated by a brief flash of light.

He sat up, pulling the blanket over his shoulders before slowly getting to his feet. He had expected to be sore, but just felt a little tired.

“Tei?” Dorcha whispered, turning the corner and stopping dead in his tracks.

Tei stood naked in the cave opening, facing the night. Snow was drifting down outside, but the snowflakes never got the chance to touch the ground; combusting into a brief burst of flame before disappearing.

It was the most beautiful thing Dorcha had ever seen.

As he watched, not caring that his vision was growing fuzzy, Tei suddenly looked over his shoulder. Without a word he turned towards Dorcha, closing the few steps between them.

“Why?” Tei asked quietly, reaching up to wipe away Dorcha’s tears.

“Because I love you,” Dorcha replied, answering the vague question in the only way he knew how.

Something flickered in Tei’s eyes, a dying light that told of a million things. “I don’t know what that means,” he whispered.

Dorcha smiled, closing the final distance between them to press a soft kiss over Tei’s heart. “That’s all right, I’ll teach you.”

Tei didn’t answer in words, but the way he held Dorcha when they went back to bed said it all.

—-

“Dorcha! Come and see who I found!”

The shout made Dorcha sit upright, waking up with his heart in his throat. “Damn, don’t wake me up like that,” he muttered.

He quickly pulled on his pants — thankful to find them blessedly dry — and hurried out of the cave.

Tei stood there, grinning widely and with the bay mare next to him.

“You found her! That’s great,” Dorcha smiled, happy to see her unharmed.

“She stayed pretty close to the river. And you know, I actually think she was glad to see me.”

“Who wouldn’t be?” Dorcha smirked.

Tei rolled his eyes, but his smile never faltered. “We should name her,” he said.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, she’ll know where she belongs if we give her one. So if we ever get separated again, she can come when called.”

Dorcha laughed, enjoying Tei’s childish enthusiasm. “What should we call her then?”

“Flame!”

“…Hell no. That’s not a name for a girl, and besides you only picked that because you’re obsessed with fire!”

“I did not,” Tei retorted heatedly.

“Sure sure. Instead of that, how about…” Dorcha trailed off, taking in the way the mare kept buffing at Tei with her muzzle. When Tei didn’t give her the attention she craved, she nibbled at his hair. “Minx,” he snickered, “that’s perfect for her.”

“What? That makes no sense,” Tei said dismissively, oblivious to the mare’s behavior. “If not Flame, then Bonfire. That suits a girl too.”

“It’s just another fire-related name! But fine, I see there’s no point in arguing with you.”

Tei nodded, pleased.

“Hey,” Dorcha said as he walked over to the mare. “Welcome back, Bonnie.”

“No nicknames!” Tei spluttered.

Dorcha just laughed in reply.

“And to think I even went out of my way to check up on the priests,” Tei muttered.

“You did?” Dorcha said, suddenly serious.

“They’re fine, don’t worry. They’re all there, and seemed to be part of the monastery already. It looks like a safe place, in my opinion.”

Dorcha closed his eyes, sending a silent thanks to whoever might be listening.

“Do you want to stay in this area, or travel onwards?” Tei asked.

“As nice as the cave has been,” Dorcha said, blushing slightly at the memories, “I don’t think it’ll be a good place to stay now, during winter.”

Tei nodded in silent agreement.

“Is there anywhere you want to go?” Dorcha asked.

Tei shrugged. “I don’t care. As long as…” he faltered, turning his face away before continuing. “As long as we’re together.”

“Tei,” Dorcha whispered, reaching out to grab his hand. “You learn fast.”

Tei frowned, not getting the seemingly non sequitur comment at first. But then he smiled slowly, squeezing Dorcha’s hand and pulling him closer.

“You could still teach me a thing or two,” he breathed, leaning down to meet Dorcha’s lips.

Dorcha returned the kiss, eager to do just that.

illustrated by celectis

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